Gardner Dozois’s Appendix N Testimony

Wednesday , 15, March 2017 20 Comments

One of the most exciting things to come out of the Appendix N discussion is the number of people that have gone from having not much to read to having more in their to-read pile than they can keep up with. And it makes sense, really. The books in Appendix N defined fantasy and science fiction. Publishers stopped putting these sorts of books into print and an entire audience drifted away from them over the years. When these underserved readers find out what happened, it is as if fantasy and science fiction is alive again. And their exuberance and loyalty is just plain astonishing.

The funny thing about this is that it’s all happened before. In the forties and fifties– what is typically referred to as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”– fantasy was pretty well suppressed. People read Three Hearts and Three Lions and are blown away by a fantasy novel that is written in the vein of what we expect from the hardest of “hard” science fiction… and it’s just completely wild. But here’s the thing: that was not some kind of cute trick. Really, that was about the only way to get a fantasy novel onto the market at the time! For people struggling to categorize the contents of Appendix N according to contemporary genre conventions, this is why: a whole lot of science fiction was merely fantasy in drag.

So what happens when someone in that environment “discovers” Appendix N…? Just ask Gardner Dozois, because he was there, man:

By the early 1960s, this had begun to change. One of the first cracks in the armor, for me, anyway, happened in 1962, when an SF mass-market line named Pyramid Books published a paperback edition of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s The Incomplete Enchanter, with a quote on it from Basil Davenport– one of F&SF‘s back-cover adults– saying that “you never met anything exactly like it in your life.” I agreed– I never had met anything exactly like it in my life, and it made a large impression on me. When Pyramid Books published the sequel, The Castle of Iron, a few months later, I pounced on that as well. In 1963, Pyramid brought out an anthology of stories, edited by D. R. Bensen, from the by-then long extinct fantasy magazine Unknown, where the de Camp and Pratt “Harold Shea” stories that had gone into making up The Incomplete Enchanter had originally appeared; sensitized by this connection, I bought the anthology, one of the first anthologies I can remember buying. In its pages, encountered Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as well as discovering the work of Manly Wade Wellman and H. L. Gold. A few months later, I came across another Pyramid anthology, this one edited by L. Sprague de Camp and called Swords & Sorcery, a deliberate attempt by de Camp to preserve at least, and perhaps revive, a then-Endangered Literary Species called “sword & sorcery” or “heroic fantasy.” Here was another Grey Mouser story, and here for the first time I also encountered Robert E. Howard’s Conan and C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, first read the work of Lord Dunsany and H. P. Lovecraft, and first read the fantasy work– I was already with his science fiction– of Poul Anderson; a later de Camp anthology, The Spell of Seven, introduced me to Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. (D. R. Bensen, who was the editor of Pyramid Books during this period, and who therefore was responsible for bringing all this material back in print, can be seen, in fact, as one of the unsung and forgotten progenitors of the whole modern fantasy revival.)

Now, since I have started writing on this topic, I have been told repeatedly that Appendix N is “just” a list of books that Gary Gygax liked. And you know, I guess it was that. But that list of authors that looks so strange and weird and obscure today…? It was just those writers that defined fantasy for a whole bunch of people in the sixties.

After being exposed to these books in the same sort of rapid fire concentration that Gardner Dozois experienced, guys like Jon Mollison and Jon Del Arroz will go so far as to say that it changed their life. That sounds like hyperbole. It sounds like their tongue is firmly planted into their cheeks when they talk like that. But there really is a strange alchemy here that corresponds to a very real and repeatable side effect of reading these books. I mean, the last time this happened you got the sort of groundswell that would put the relatively unknown and eccentric author J. R. R. Tolkien into paperback here in the states. Dungeons & Dragons would be discovered and/or invented shortly thereafter.

The thing is, all of this did not fit the script. Adults were supposed to have set aside fairy tales when they came of age. Society was supposed to have “evolved” beyond the need superstition and myth and fantasy. But no matter how much they sneered, not matter how much they dismissed, no matter how much they disregarded, no matter how much they suppressed it, human nature would eventually reassert itself against the claims of a coterie of would-be psychohistorians.

Big things happened the last time Appendix N was dragged back into the public’s attention. And it’s happening again right now!

  • B&N says:

    Telling me “Appendix N is “just” a list of books that Gary Gygax liked” is like telling me that The Holy Bible is just a bunch of books that the Council of Nicea liked.

  • Jasyn Jones says:

    We live in a golden age of ebooks, so all of these once nearly impossible to find works are freely available again. More, a TON of Pulp magazines are available for free on the Web.

    Widespread availability of the works—you can go from hearing about a book for the first time to reading it in MINUTES—seems to be another prerequisite for the Pulp Revolution. Pulp Rev couldn’t happen until those elements were in place.

    • Rod Walker says:

      Can confirm. Most of the Appendix N stuff Rod Walker read in the last two years was on Kindle.

    • deuce says:

      Yeah, Gutenberg is another good source. Out of print pulp classics? Not really. Not anymore. What’s still hard to find is the great pulp-inspired fiction of the ’60s and ’70s, of which there was a fair amount, especially sword and sorcery. A lot of that is still copyrighted and a fair percentage isn’t out in ebooks.

      • B&N says:

        It’s always Sonny Bono in Philadelphia

        htt ps://en .wikipedia. org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

      • Rod Walker says:

        This year Rod Walker wants to start on the Tarzan series via Gutenberg. He read the 1st three John Carter books way before the Kindle and really liked them, so he’s looking forward to Tarzan.

        • John E. Boyle says:

          If you have the time, Rod Walker, keep a list of what you have been TOLD about Tarzan, and what you READ in the Tarzan novels.

          Much of what people know about Lord Greystoke isn’t so, it’s the shadow of Hollywood.

      • deuce says:

        The Tarzan books are a blast. All of them are worth reading — though TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD MEN could definitely be a bit stronger. You can’t go wrong with the first 8 or 9 books. Those were in that 12-15yr golden age when ERB was just getting started, bursting with enthusiasm and imagination.

    • ChrisL says:

      One if the reasons I love reading these kind of posts is because of that very thing. I’ll hear about an author I’ve never heard of before, then next thing you know I’m throwing money (if the works aren’t on Guttenberg) at Amazon and adding to my reading backlog. At this rate I should run out if reading material sometime just before the heat death of the universe.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    Dozois is a hack who likes everything equally. His tenure as editor of ASIMOV’S bored me to tears, as did his YEAR’S BEST SF anthologies. I gave up on reading new SF for twenty years, largely because of him.

    He put out a patronizing anthology called “The Good Old Stuff” with a mix of Cambellian SF and New Wave feminist garbage. It’s like he can’t tell the difference. In my opinion, he’s worse than an honest enemy like Damon Knight.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      The anthology quoted above exhibits the same pattern. This guy is literally Ellsworth Toohey. Sets himself up as an authority in a particular field, wows everyone with his encyclopedic knowledge, and proceeds to destroy any standards of value by putting trash on the same level as great literature.

    • Dozois bought my stories, so I like his taste just fine.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      Might I suggest that even a hack has to acknowledge your level of talent?

      I can’t respect somebody who puts “Bears Discover Fire” alongside Wellman, Leiber, Vance, and Zelazny.

      • Jesse Lucas says:

        I remember that one! It even stuck with me, unlike the other stories in the anthology. I think I was twelve. If I recall correctly, bears discovered fire and started burning things down, and so a bunch of humans who didn’t like each other had to change a tire and be boring, and then it was over.

        I was relieved to learn, much later, that I wasn’t just too callow to understand it and stories like it, they were actually bad. Just boring bad, though, not actively, offensively tearing away at good things. More of a carbon monoxide than a cyanide.

  • Can confirm that it changed my life in that it changed the way I’m looking at storytelling and worldbuilding. I used to focus so much on realism, but now I’m not worried about that in the least. There’s no such thing as realism in science fiction or fantasy by definition, and these great old classic writers understood that. I feel free because of Appendix N.

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      “Realism” is one of those words that we don’t all agree on and is easy to get into subsidiary disagreements over something else through. That same insidious pressure tries to make us believe that “realistic” and “cynical” are the same things. When this equivalence is held, cynical characters are more realistic than idealistic characters, unless said ideals are brutally shattered. Cowards are more “realistic” than heroes. A generation starship giving up and going home is more “realistic” than turning into a noble pioneer braving fearful odds.

      There is definitely realism in science fiction and fantasy. John Carter taking up arms to defend the helpless even though they’re not his kin and they owe each other no debts is realistic, because men like him do exist. I like to think I’m like that, too. Have we met no heroes? Is Wormtongue somehow more realistic than Theoden?

      No, idealistic heroes can be realistic at the same time. Even if John Carter does not exist, his qualities do, and Burroughs was meticulous in his chronicling of them. Remember that the most heroic of all once lived, and made the most heroic sacrifice of all for us; after that, no character can be too heroic to be real.

      • Nathan says:

        It is easier to talk in terms of specific definitions, such as literary realism, as the meaning of realism today has drifted into ideas of accuracy rather than slavish adherence to the reality of the present moment. While John Carter might be accurate to the human spirit, he will never be realistic, in a literary sense. And until the definitions get clarified, there will be confusion.

  • JonM says:

    Jeffro is selling himself short here. I read most of Appendix N over a 20 year period. It wasn’t until Jeffro connected all the dots and showed me the pattern that I understood what had been done. It was that realization that changed my life and set me on a path to iconoclasm and revolution.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Since I’ve been reading Appendix N books since at least the early ’70s I can’t say they are knew to me or changed my life recently. Which isn’t to say I’ve read them all, I haven’t but, I’ve been a fan of pulp lit since before I could read (my Dad read me stuff). But, what is new for me is a community to talk about them with who also appreciate them. That is revolutionary and inspiring. I’d been looked at like I was a kook so many times that I’d pretty much given up trying to discuss them with people. It’s just great to suddenly interact with people who also appreciate them.

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